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According to the Pew Research Center, around 88% of Americans had at least some belief in a God, with around 63% being "absolutely certain" of this. This is in stark contrast to other comparable countries, such as the UK, where a 2011 YouGov poll found that only 34% of respondents reported belief in a God.

A 2017 study of 15 Western European countries, again conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that the median percentage of respondents reporting belief in a higher power across the nations was 65%, which is still a good deal less than the US.

This is emulated in the nation's politics, with a 2018 poll finding that only 60% of Americans would entertain voting for an atheist, and only one member of Congress identifying as "religiously unaffiliated". This is a vast difference to attitudes in the UK, where a 2015 YouGov poll found that the announcement by two of the main candidates for the General Election that they were atheist made only 6% of voters view them more negatively, while the announcement that the remaining main candidate was a member of the Church of England made 7% of voters view him more negatively.

What are the factors that have led to religion being so important in the US, relative to other Western countries?

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    Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question or for your personal opinions about religion. Comments should be used to improve the question. For more information on how comments on questions should and should not be used, please review the help article about the commenting privilege. – Philipp Mar 15 at 11:35
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    You ask about the US compared to "other western countries," but your statements only support the contrast between US and UK. There are probably other western countries which are more similar to the US in this regard than the UK. – Aaron Mar 16 at 3:03
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    @Aaron Please see the 2017 study of 15 western European countries – CDJB Mar 16 at 6:48
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    @CDJB I believe you are misreading the 2017 poll. That 38% is those who "believe in some other higher power or spiritual force," which is to be added to the 27% who "believe in God as described in the Bible." That makes 65% who believe in some sort of God. – shoover Mar 16 at 23:56
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    You say the word "atheist" as if it meant something other than "agent of the Devil, sent to corrupt your children, destroy your way of life, and drag all of your loved ones and their little dogs too down to hell." When you poll people here in the U.S.A., you can get quite different answers to what is essentially the same question depending on whether you use certain trigger words; "atheist," "socialist," "liberal," etc.; or, whether you simply describe the idea without naming it. – Solomon Slow Mar 17 at 12:08
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While the United States doesn't have a national religion, the US has fairly deep religious liberty roots, and it has lead to a few twists and turns in the religious sentiment

Religious Refugees

Every year, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving (a major US holiday), and most children could tell you some version of the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans. The truth is, it was a religious holiday long before Abraham Lincoln formalized it

Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a well-recorded 1619 event in Virginia and a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group's charter from the London Company, which specifically required "that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned ... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest, which the Pilgrims celebrated with Native Americans, who helped them get through the previous winter by giving them food in that time of scarcity.

Then there were the religious immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries. Jews, for instance, migrated from an openly hostile Russia (a story popularized in a 1986 children's movie). There are many Christian immigrants with similar stories. People still immigrate to the US for religious reasons (Christian or not) to this day.

The 1950's "War" with Communism

After World War II, the Cold War brought proxy wars between the US and Soviet Russia. One point of tension was that the United States was seen as a "Christian nation", while the Soviets were staunch Atheists. It was well known there was active hostility of the Soviets against religion

Orthodox churches were stripped of their valuables in 1922 at the instigation of Lenin and Trotsky. In subsequent years, including both the Stalin and the Khrushchev periods, tens of thousands of churches were torn down or desecrated, leaving behind a disfigured wasteland that bore no resemblance to Russia such as it had stood for centuries. Entire districts and cities of half a million inhabitants were left without a single church. Our people were condemned to live in this dark and mute wilderness for decades, groping their way to God and keeping to this course by trial and error. The grip of oppression that we have lived under, and continue to live under, has been so great that religion, instead of leading to a free blossoming of the spirit, has been manifested in asserting the faith on the brink of destruction, or else on the seductive frontiers of Marxist rhetoric, where so many souls have come to grief.

This let McCarthyism (where Communists in America were hunted down by McCarthy) define atheism as de-facto Communist sentiment

Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down—they are truly down.

As such, the 1950s saw a rapid rise in religious participation

Churches and schools were being greatly expanded to accommodate the growing population, and organized religion was in its heyday. On a typical Sunday morning in the period from 1955-58, almost half of all Americans were attending church – the highest percentage in U.S. history. During the 1950s, nationwide church membership grew at a faster rate than the population, from 57 percent of the U.S. population in 1950 to 63.3 percent in 1960.

Much of this generation (the "baby boomers") are still alive and have passed on their faith to their children. Consider that the Democrat's "liberal lion" Ted Kennedy was responsible for pushing the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Senate, which drew bipartisan support.

The Moral Majority

In 1979, Jerry Falwell Sr. founded The Moral Majority, which sought to mix Christianity with political conservatism and eventually the Republican party. It helped to elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and defined a period of time in America where Conservative Christianity was a political force to be reckoned with.

It's shortly after this we start to see some significant generational declines in religious participation

Pew Research trends by generation

Why has America leveled off?

Despite the intermingling of politics and religion, America still has a large network of churches in most communities, and these churches are not going quietly into the night. Southern Baptists (the largest protestant denomination in America) has a fairly robust church planting and outreach ministry. The Catholic Church runs a large network of hospitals and they also have a fairly large charitable organization. With a stable base of legacy Christians still supporting them, America's churches continue to impact their local communities, which helps drive membership.

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    I like Ted Wrigley's answer but I think this answer gives a much better background to the present religious landscape in the US. I'm surprised you didn't mention the inclusion of the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, a pledge that was ironically written by a socialist. – President James Moveon Polk Mar 14 at 23:07
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    About the last paragraph: the Catholic Church also runs an network of hospitals in some European countries, and, even more important, a large network of schools - often partially funded with taxpayer's money. However, church attendance and religiosity is low and keeps declining. Those networks aren't likely to be an important factor in keeping the US religious because in Europe they just don't work. – Pere Mar 15 at 14:53
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    @Pere Yes, but the Catholic Church used to be much more political in Europe as well, which may explain why Europe might still be skeptical of them. It was something of a big deal when JFK was elected, since he was the first and only Roman Catholic President. – Machavity Mar 15 at 15:27
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    Good answer, but I think one aspect of Amrican religion is missing: it is good business with a solid return of investment. This means there is plenty of incentive for unscrupulous individuals to try to make money on the gullible. – j4nd3r53n Mar 17 at 11:48
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    @j4nd3r53n Yes, but I would argue the profiteers of Christianity are little different from the profiteers of health supplements and drugs, or the profiteers of some new scientific discovery (i.e. stem cell treatments). They are profiteers because the underlying system has some trust, not because they have built that trust themselves. – Machavity Mar 17 at 12:31
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Answering this question properly would require a broad discussion of the religious tensions and transformations in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with the English Reformation where the Church of England broke off from the authority of the Pope. Suffice it to say (for our purposes) that this move created a religious power vacuum in which a number of different British sects vied for dominance. There was a lot of fighting during this period between different sects, titularly headed by different members of the English nobility, culminating in the English Civil War and Cromwell's short-lived Commonwealth.

After the fall of the commonwealth and the reassertion of the Anglican church as a state church, life was — shall we say — uncomfortable for a lot of religious sects in England: more because they were viewed as rebellious than because of their actual beliefs. This was particularly true for the Puritans, who had backed Cromwell's ascension and regime and were viewed with distrust and antipathy. So many members of these groups decided it was a good time to emigrate somewhere where they could have a degree of sovereignty and freedom from religious oppression. The New World was just opening up at that time, and was seen as an open, uninhabited region (never mind those pesky natives). The Puritans and other openly rebellious groups gravitated towards the Northeast (New York and New England); more Royalist-friendly groups congregated down in the deep south, where they split from the CoE and developed the range of Protestant sects we see today; Catholics (who had been abused both under the monarchy and the Commonwealth) tended to settle in the middle of the seaboard, along with a few other independent sects (like the Mennonites and the Quakers). But all in all, a large portion of the early colonial settlers were religious sects frustrated by their inability to achieve hegemony in English politics, and looking for a secure place to establish themselves and their faith without interference.

This quest for the independent practice of faith was enshrined in the US constitution, and the generally rebellious orientation — that "Our faith is good and right and deserves a place in the sun" attitude — has never really left the US political and social sphere. The US is still deeply religious because many of its original settlers were motivated sectarian pit-bulls, dedicated to establishing and developing their faith. That attitude has been passed down through the generations.

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    Basically this answer seems to boil down to "The US is still deeply religious because many of its original settlers were motivated sectarian pit-bulls" (quoting from the last para.) Alas there's not much evidence provided in this answer that this is still the reason, hundreds of years later... – Fizz Mar 15 at 2:04
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    @Fizz: I cannot convince you of the power of acculturation if you do not want to believe in the power of acculturation. I'll remind you, however, that there are more than a few people who still still reference the Crusades when talking about the current problems in the middle east. 300 years is not that much time in terms of cultural attitudes... – Ted Wrigley Mar 15 at 3:18
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    Yes, but you haven't gone to the length of exploring what economists would call "transmission channels". Are people more religious because their families were so (thus upbringing explains is)? Is there some other part of US society's machinery that does this (or complements the upbringing channel)? Etc. – Fizz Mar 15 at 3:54
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    @Fizz: I'm not suer how you're applying 'transmission channels' here: not a term I'm familiar with, and I'm suspicious of economic reductionism. Religiosity passes down less through family orientation than through community religiosity (meaning one is less likely to express devotion through parental influence than through the influence of church leaders or religious peers), and religious attitudes often persist even where overt religious behavior has been abandoned. If you think solely in terms of individual pathways of transmission you miss the pressures of collective understanding. – Ted Wrigley Mar 15 at 4:18
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    An American ex-pat colleague once told me "My country is easier to understand if you remember that a lot of the first European settlers were religious fanatics or mercenaries." – Jason Mar 17 at 1:39
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(Previous answer deleted, new answer here.)

The answer is historical.

The other Western nations have a history, going back centuries, of official state churches. The United States, on the other hand, banned any hint of an official church in the First Amendment of its Constitution.

The intervening years have shown the inherent weakness of state-sponsored religion: The institutions sponsored in this way begin to show less concern for spiritual matters and more concern for worldly affairs. People who are seeking a relationship with God are less inclined to attend, and people seeking the benefits of the state sponsorship are more inclined to attend.

And if you can keep the doors open without making a compelling case for God, why do it?

So the churches begin to die on the inside. When the state support is curtailed, the collapse begins.

Please note that I am not claiming in any way that private churches are immune to becoming worldly; there are plenty of American churches which are nothing more than glorified social clubs. But because American churches are free of one influence (among many) that drag churches away from appealing to spiritually-minded people, religion has remained stronger in the US than in other Western nations.

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    Freedom of Religion {in the UK} has been indemnified in the US since 1776. Blaspheme was illegal in the UK until 2008, and "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" wasn't a guarantee until the UN resolution of 1966, and did not include all religions until 1993. - "34% of respondents reported belief in [your] God." – Mazura Mar 15 at 19:42
  • To paraphrase - "churches/religion offers something to the statistically average american that they can't get from their government or society or social peers" Does that match your intent ? – Criggie Mar 16 at 3:01
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    This can also answer another similar question: why are there so many atheists in America? From my experience, most Americans are either devoted Christians, or very strong atheists, while in Europe many people just say "I'm not very religious", many being basically lukewarm (or cultural) Christians without any strong devotion to the religion. – vsz Mar 17 at 15:07
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Since the question is comparing the US vs Western democracies, a related question might be: What caused the quick drop-off of religious belief in many European countries?

I don't think the US in 1850-1900 would have been that much of an outlier compared to the Europeans. Not as much as nowadays, anyways. Europeans did go to church - it might be difficult to get hard numbers of attendance - but there are plenty of anecdotal references to Sunday services in contemporary news and literature.

Church attendance has since really dropped throughout Europe, much more rapidly so than in the US.

The reasons for it vary from country to country. Here's a list of some that seem applicable, but it's less about the list itself than the end result of religion having lost a lot of ground in Europe:

  • sometimes in line with EvilSnack's warning about the dangers of state-sponsored religions.

  • ill-advised political backing of Franco by the Catholic Church.

  • regulatory over-reach as shown in the recent Irish referendum about abortion, not long after a woman became a cause celebre for dying for lack of treatment for a miscarriage.

  • there's quite a bit of cynicism related to the lack of Papal denunciation of Hitler's regime (or excommunications pertaining to it - Bavaria was a traditionally Catholic Lande). The Vatican has just released the secrecy seal on contemporary documents so we will know more about whether it was defensible or not - some do believe he did the best he could.

  • (more debatable) Europe suffered through two world wars for no really good geopolitical reasons (fighting Nazism was extremely justified, Nazism becoming a political power capable of waging war was an aberration however). There must have been quite a bit of "For God and Country" sanctimony making the rounds at the time and post-war disillusionment with armed conflicts might have blamed religious leaders by association.

  • the Catholic Church has suffered immense reputational damage from child abuse cases. And, at least in some parts of Europe, it's the main/only church, so its losses are losses for the faith as a whole.

  • any number of other reasons resulting in an extremely rapid drop in religious influence in Europe throughout the 20th century that for some reason did not happen in the US.

There are some exceptions, like Poland, but by and large, it is not so much that 21st century USA is extremely religious as 21st century Europe has been become extremely disengaged.

(Poland has its own specificity as the Church was instrumental in resisting Communism, a certainly popular move)

Compared to some other rich modern democracies, like South Korea, which is increasingly Christian, the US is not that much of an outlier either.

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    This answer touches on what I think is the real answer. The drop-off of religious belief has been rapid, and it simply started a couple decades earlier in Europe. So although the US and Europe seem differ radically during this time of transition, they were similar before it began, an will be similar when it's complete. – StackOverthrow Mar 17 at 17:58
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As a European with a partner from the U.S. I found the level of religiosity in the United States stunning. Germany has become very secular; religious leaders, with few exceptions, do not play much of a public role. Religion is more important in the Catholic south of Germany, for sure, and like in America religion is more important in the country than in the cities. But the difference is still astonishing.

Other posts mentioned that in the past centuries most Europeans to whom religion was extremely important emigrated to the United States.

The effect was a religious "brain drain" from Europe into the United States which is still felt today. The really religious people simply aren't here any longer. The longevity of this effect makes one wonder about a genetic disposition for religiosity (a somewhat simplistic theory is that of the "God gene").1 We will not solve the question of nature vs. nurture here but only state that the effect is very long-lived, be it genes or memes or, as it is commonly, a synergy.


1 Other conspicuous traits that distinguish Americans of European descent from Europeans are the optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. Personal private experience and work experience of my partner shows that Americans take more risks, are less afraid of failure and more willing to accept changes (like a move or change of employment) than their European counterparts. If we try to imagine what character traits distinguished young people who emigrated to the United States from their peers who stayed behind this difference is almost self-understood. The only astonishing thing is that it lasted through the centuries and is still so recognizable today.

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